As the ‘Deflate Gate’ controversy continues to swirl, the evidence against the Patriots seems rock solid. But a statistical expert lets the air out of the leap of logic too many people are eager to make.
Despite an ongoing investigations, the New England Patriots stand accused of cheating by deflating footballs during last week’s AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, and many fans have already rendered their verdict: Guilty as charged.
Now, according to numerous sportswriters and commentators, all that remains to be done is impose sentence.
One Boston-based sports columnist wrote, “Regardless of what the league determines, the Patriots' coach already has been declared guilty in the court of public opinion, his football brilliance superseded only by his football arrogance.”
Hall of Famer wide receiver Jerry Rice, a guy who knows a little something about catching footballs, tweeted, “11 out of 12 balls underinflated can anyone spell cheating!!”
In an online poll of more than 150,000 fans, 53 percent agreed that “The Patriots got caught pulling a fast one, which was particularly dumb since they didn't need the advantage.”
In an age of 24-7 mainstream media and instantaneous social media, this is how rumors, innuendo and accustoms get turned into convictions. And no matter what further information confirms or disproves the original allegations, the takeaway for most people is simple: The Patriots and their coach are cheaters. Now and forever.
What the stats really show
Is it possible that there’s more to the story, however? Even if 11 out of 12 game balls prove to be underinflated, is that really evidence of guilt?
First of all, as more than one observer has pointed out, a football inflated to the proper pressure indoors, with “hot” indoor air, will surely lose inflation once it’s left for several hours on the sidelines outdoors on a cold, wet evening.
More to the point, statistical analyst Alec Campbell, PhD., who is Director of Institutional Research at Everett Community College in Washington, explained why jumping to conclusions is unwarranted. In a blog post, Campbell wrote:
“There is evidence that 11 out of 12 balls were underinflated.
“But what does this ‘evidence’ actually show?
“Nothing. Why? Because, as the great statistician Edward Tufte wrote, ‘At the heart of quantitative reasoning is a single question: Compared to what?’
“Whether 11 of 12 (91 percent) is a lot depends entirely on what you are comparing it to. One of the ways people lie with statistics is by presenting them as if they were self-referential: ‘I could see if it were 3 or 4 balls but 11 out of 12? C’mon something’s gotta be going on there.’
(Hello, Jerry Rice).
“Maybe . . . maybe not.”
Campbell went on to note that the existence of 11 of 12 deflated balls, by themselves, isn’t enough for a conviction.
“The key piece of evidence in this case is the inflation of the Colts’ game balls. If 11 of the 12 balls the Colts used were deflated after the game, then the state of the Patriots’ balls is just the state of game balls after a game. If only one or two Colts balls are deflated, however, then we have pretty strong evidence that something was done to the Patriots’ balls.”
“So far, we have only the appearance of evidence; heat but no light.”
Statistics aside, this incident illustrates the problem animal agriculture and the entire meat industry faces: Allegations lead to judgments. Judgments lead to condemnation. And condemnations forever taint those who stand accused — no matter how suspect the “evidence,” as Dr. Campbell pointed out.
The only way to counteract this overwhelming tendency we all have to decide someone or something is right or wrong, no matter what the facts eventually demonstrate, is to wage a relentless battle to lodge concise, compelling factoids in the public’s consciousness.
That’s a thankless business in a way, because there is no immediate reward, no instant feedback that supports those efforts. Nobody bothers to tweet, “Great info about ranchers’ role in protecting habitat! #sustainability.”
But “pre-loading” the public consciousness is the only antidote to the phenomenon of, “A few facts is all I need to declare someone guilty!”
Maybe the Patriots did let the air out of their footballs.
But whether they did or didn’t, the air’s already out of what should have been a magnificent performance to win their conference.
And no matter what, that’s never going to change.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.